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Jean Paul Sartre smoking a pipe in front of a book shelf

Je Refuse: On Sartre’s Rejection of the Nobel Literature Prize


Sartre left an intriguing act for posterity: rejection of the world’s most important literary institution.

Jean Paul Sartre, philosopher, novelist and French playwright, one of Existentialism’s pillars, had a problematic relationship with institutionalism: the originality of his thought, the accuracy of his analysis, and the lucidity of his political consciousness, among other factors, made him an important model for French intellectualism.

His communist filiation, however, led his critics to make coarse caricatures of him and his work. The support he gave Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution were a milestone of the 1960s. Therefore, by rejecting the Nobel Literature Prize in 1964, as he would explain in a statement, he was maintaining his political independence from the consequences which such an award could have reflected in the causes that mattered to him.

This attitude is based on my conception of the writer’s enterprise. A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable.

A name —any name— is already a pact made with the history of a genealogy, a family and, in time, that name adopts militancy and associations we can’t always avoid. In Sartre’s case, his rejection of the Nobel was not an attack against the award itself; instead, it was the continuity of his thought. Let us remember that, in 1945, Sartre rejected the Legion of Honor for similar reasons, and he even said that he would reject the Lenin Prize (the Soviet Bloc’s equivalent to the Nobel) if it had been given to him.

Sartre was not the only writer that rejected the Literature Nobel. George Bernard Shaw did so in 1926 because of the scandalous amount of money it awards since, in his own words, “I have sufficient money for my needs.”

“If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize winner,” he said in one of the texts where he explains the scandalous gesture, “The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case.”

For Sartre, the rejection of the Nobel and Lenin Prizes (if they had given him the latter) would have encompassed a symmetrical gesture to support “The peaceful co-existence of two cultures, the East and the West”, although, when he spoke of the East, he specifically meant Russia. But the most visceral reason is in the Sartre by Himself documentary, where even the visceral becomes congruence:

Considering my political performances, the bourgeoisie establishment wanted to cover up my “past mistakes”. We have an opening! And then they gave me the Nobel Prize. They “forgave me” and told me I deserved it. It was monstrous.

As a matter of fact, according to legend, De Gaulle forgave Sartre after the philosopher participated in the events of May, 1968, in France, with a phrase which, as a compliment to Sartre, allows us to discern what writers mean —at least symbolically— to the powerful: “You don’t arrest Voltaire.”

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